"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. Boy, was he wrong. Consider Rob Lowe, Ronald Reagan, Justin Timberlake, and Steve Jobs. And if you need more evidence, there's always Carmen y Juan's.
It's a Mexican restaurant. You can be forgiven if you never thought it worth your while to stop by, or never even heard of it for that matter. The only reason I dropped in was because a friend with good culinary tastes emailed me and said, "You've got to give this place a try."
It's a strip-mall Mexican joint, way out inside the big Park West development in the upper reaches of the Mt. Pleasant 'burbs. You'd have little reason to expect anything more than the same generic menu found at a thousand Tex-Mex joints across the country: endless permutations of numbered combo dinners, the Speedy Gonzales lunch special, margaritas mixed with bottom-shelf tequila and neon green-dyed, high fructose corn syrup-laden mix.
Carmen y Juan's occupies a single-wide storefront with orange walls accented by yellow shutters that uselessly flank the windows on the inside. Not surprisingly, you're delivered a basket of tortilla chips right after you sit down.
But the chips are sort of pillowy, and they're fried a deep golden brown — much darker than your typical Tex-Mex chip. There's something unusual about the menu, too: it's pretty slim for a restaurant working in a genre where a tri-fold bill of fare offering a hundred or more dishes is the norm.
Carmen y Juan's offerings fit on two sides of a single sheet of paper. On the front: four appetizers, a half dozen a la carte tacos, tortas, and tostados, and precisely nine entrees with familiar names like taquitos, enchiladas, chile rellenos, and fajitas. On the back: kids menu, beverages, desserts, and five breakfast dishes that are served all day.
A separate laminated sheet boasts nine daily specials, but that seems a misnomer, since they're served each and every day. These names are familiar, too — carne asada, tamales, chilaquiles, chimichangas — but what arrives when you order may not be quite what you anticipated.
A strong aroma of pumpkin rises from the red mole ($10). Tucked inside are tender chunks of chicken breast. The mole is ruddy brown in color and, unlike the insipid, chocolatey sauce you get in the average Tex-Mex place, it's not at all sweet. Instead, it's gravu thick and generously sprinkled with sesame seeds.
I found the first bite almost off-puttingly bitter, but the flavor grew on me as I made my way through the plate, each bite improving on the previous until I sopped up the last drops with warm tortillas.
Something different's going on here, I thought.
On a later visit, I struck up a conversation with Juan, the restaurant's co-owner. He admitted that the business, originally named Los Compadres, got off on a bad foot trying to follow the pattern set by all the other guys in the business. Their reception had been mixed and the traffic slow. Juan's business partner wanted to amp it up and try to imitate their strip-mall competitors even more. Juan had a different idea.
A year ago, he told me, he asked his partner to let him step up and take over the daily operations. Instead of adding more permutations and combinations, he pared the menu back to the basics. In the kitchen, they focused on freshness and making everything — the tortillas, the salsa, the mole — from scratch.
"This is what I ate growing up," Juan told me. "We make everything here except the beer and the chicken fingers," he said.
In September, they officially launched their second act by changing the restaurant's name, in part a practical matter that distanced themselves from the online reviews garnered by the original incarnation. It also put a more personal stamp on a restaurant in a genre typically christened with the names of Mexican cities or random Spanish nouns (toro, potro, hacienda). Carmen, it turns out, is the cook who leads the kitchen.
The recipe for the mole rojo came from the woman who makes their tortillas. She tossed out the old recipe they were using and replaced it with one calling for many more ingredients, like bananas and a special dried chile that Juan is keeping a secret.
I'm not going to stretch it too far and claim that Carmen y Juan's is a temple of high-end traditional Mexican cuisine. It is still a modest neighborhood Mexican restaurant, with a casual vibe and entrées in the very reasonable 7 to 12 dollar range. The plates are heavy white plastic, the napkins paper, the flatware basic and cheap.
The breakfast menu, which is available all day, features huevos with rice and beans in multiple variations (each $7) — rancheros with tomato salsa, with chorizo, with ham, or "a la Mexicana" with onions, tomato, and jalapeño.
The tomato-tinged rice with its little chunks of carrot and the refried beans with shreds of melted white cheese on top are unremarkable. The puffy chips are served with a bright red tomato-laden salsa in the requisite faux molcajete made of black plastic. The salsa is laced with big flecks of fresh cilantro that add a nice minty zip, but it's as mild as tomato soup.
But if you ask your server to add heat, you'll be delivered a bowl so spicy it will leave beads of sweat on your brow. And each time I've ordered off the Daily Specials menu, I had a dish that delivered a something a little different — and a lot more fresh and flavorful — than I expected.
The tamales ($10 for 2) are dense and bready, the masa cooked until it's golden brown with deep striations from the corn husks in which they are steamed to order. They are far thicker and fluffier than a typical Tex-Mex tamale, and superbly filling. I was almost incapacitated by fullness from just two of them stuffed with tiny slivers of spiced pork. They're served with a boring garnish of iceberg lettuce and diced tomato, but the tiny plastic cup on the side is filled not with sour cream but with actual heavy cream for drizzling over the top.
The carnitas ($12) are marinated in fresh orange and pineapple juices, and the thick chunks of pork pull into beautiful long strands as you eat them. They come with a cup of thin pepper-studded yellow sauce for dipping that adds a fiery bite to the rich pork.
And there's always a daily special, too, like caldo de res, pozole, and even, much to my surprise, menudo. No, not the 1980s Puerto Rican boy band but the traditional Mexican soup made from beef stomach.
"We make it for the Latinos," Juan told me. It's a labor intensive preparation, and one associated with family gatherings and, incidentally, curing hangovers, which seem to go hand in hand with family gatherings no matter where you hail from.
Their secret, Juan says, is that they cook and rinse the stomach four times, which gets all the organy flavors out of it. I can't report on the quality of the menudo, unfortunately, since I had already polished off a big plate of mole rojo by the time I noticed it on the special board.
But, for a restaurant to be serving a traditional Mexican soup made from beef stomach in the heart of 'burby Park West has to be some kind of milestone. It's encouraging to see a restaurateur getting back to the basics and focusing on freshness and homestyle recipes instead of the conventional wisdom of its competitors.
If you're out in the Park West area and want a sample of homestyle Mexican cooking, give Carmen y Juan's a shot.